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It's when

| September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

It was always a question of when.

And now must be then.

Last week, the community was full of anger, frustration and fear.

W.R. Grace, actually Health Network of America, sent out letters last week to nearly 800 members of the "Grace Plan," a so-called health plan for asbestos victims with a Libby connection to the corporation's former mining and milling operations here. Some of those letters all but said people were healed and, boy, were some of those folks upset. Just ask the employees at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.

It wasn't surprising, either. That people would be upset. After all, some of these people are wheezing their way through treatment for a disease that only progresses and never regresses while a corporation more than 2,000 miles away, without a doctor's examination of the patient, declares them virtually healed. I seem to remember someone accusing HNA of practicing medicine without a patient in the past.

It's interesting how people receiving benefits for treatment of asbestos-related disease for several years are suddenly better. A medical examination by a doctor just became less valuable since one just needs to look at x-rays.

For those more business-minded, this would seem a prudent move to rid yourself of unnecessary expense. But why leave everyone on the plan while cutting their benefits? Why not cut them completely from the plan? And why now and not before?

Perhaps Health Network of America has become another legal weapon for Grace in the upcoming — next fall — criminal trial in U.S. District Court: "We couldn't have done anything wrong, your Honor, nobody's sick."

That'll be a problem for the government lawyers pursuing Grace.

Our problem is that these letters are casting doubt on the entire medical system in this community, and we are rapidly approaching the time that a lot of people have feared since Grace slowly began tightening their purse strings on what they would cover and not cover in this so-called health plan.

The cost of health services for these 800 people and the others that haven't been diagnosed yet — remember the initial health screenings identified more than 1200 people as having lung abnormalities consistent with asbestos-related disease — will be borne by the local medical community that will have no other alternative but pass on the cost to everyone in the community. If that doesn't work we could see local medical bankruptcies and considerable pressure put on the state Medicaid program. The state has feared this possibility so much that they have spent money trying to identify just how much money is needed to provide long-term care for the ARD patients in Libby.

This community needs to come together now to establish health strategies for people suffering from asbestos-related disease. This community benefited from the employment of these people by Grace, and from Grace's presence here for nearly 40 years. That worm turned in 1999 when the EPA arrived to find out things weren't so good and two years later the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry discovered we have an abnormal rate of asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma and other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

The EPA has done a good job of cleaning the remaining asbestos in the community thus eliminating continued exposure to toxic material. But the people that were exposed in the past are still with us and needing our help.

One thing is clear at this point, the federal government is incapable of providing assistance to asbestos victims that aren't incorporated and the state of Montana simply doesn't have the resources.

If we don't work together to identify strategies to help ourselves, the resulting negatives, and ultimately the publicity of such, could be far worse than anything we've experienced thus far on this issue. — Roger Morris